The Hillsborough County School District and the boards overseeing three local charter schools should stop the political posturing and resolve a dispute that could affect the future of thousands of students. The county has legitimate concerns about how the charter schools are governed — and it's the charters' obligation to answer to the school district, not the other way around. The issues are serious, and both sides have an interest in resolving them as quickly and professionally as possible.
For months, the district has sought to clarify what roles the boards of the Florida Charter Educational Foundation and the Bay Area Charter Foundation play at Woodmont, Winthrop and Henderson Hammock. At issue is whether the schools are governed by local boards or an out-of-town parent. The FCEF is based in Fort Lauderdale and works closely with the for-profit Charter Schools USA, another Fort Lauderdale-based entity that manages the three Hillsborough charters. The Bay Area Charter Foundation has local members.
The district and the charters have played the blame-game about who has not acted in good faith to resolve the dispute. But it's the charters' responsibility to address the district's concerns, and it shouldn't have taken them months to arrange a meeting to resolve such serious issues. Local control is not some side matter; it is essential for these charters in meeting their commitment to serve a community need. It's also essential if the school district is to have the necessary leverage to keep wayward charters in line.
Superintendent MaryEllen Elia got the charters' attention last month by threatening to revoke their operating authority, a move she could have finessed without alarming the families of more than 2,000 students that their schools might close. Elia has since said she intends for the schools to remain open; the issue is who will run them. The head of the Bay Area Charter, Ron Jurado, inflamed the situation by calling Elia's actions "pathetic," "hostile" and politically motivated at the expense of children.
Jurado has since softened his words, but the rhetoric was over the top. It showed contempt for the accountability that should be expected of charters and for the relationship the school district should expect of any business partner. The chairman of the FCEF launched a similar salvo last year after the district cited similar governance questions and blocked the group's proposal for a charter at Tampa's MacDill Air Force Base. Ken Haiko said the district was "not interested in helping military families," and he blasted the move as "nonsensical political grandstanding." It was a reckless statement that served only to sour the current climate.
The FCEF is renewing its push for a MacDill charter this year. The district should not consider that application until it resolves the outstanding governance issues at Woodmont, Winthrop and Henderson Hammock. The district needs to know who is in charge just as students and their families need a stable learning environment. The two go hand in hand.